Why we’re doubling down on our commitment to use data to end homelessness during COVID-19

From COVID-19 to racial injustice, 2020 has been a year that’s exposed many longstanding inequities in the United States and the whole world. But rather than obscuring the need to address other systemic issues in America—like homelessness—these crises have amplified the need for action and progress on all fronts.

Tableau Foundation and Community Solutions have been working together since 2016 to measurably reduce—and ultimately end—homelessness in communities across the U.S. Already, through Community Solutions’ data-driven Built for Zero approach, 12 communities have reached functional zero in the number of people experiencing chronic or veteran homelessness, and many more are on that path. By reaching this milestone, communities have made homelessness rare overall, and brief when it occurs. Through a new $2 million commitment from Tableau Foundation, we’re accelerating the use of data to drive toward an end to homelessness by improving coordination across services and support organizations.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic precarity are making the fight against homelessness even more urgent. We’ve seen this in the 81 Built for Zero communities as they grapple with overlapping crises. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to be in high risk groups: they might be older and already coping with health issues, and because of often-crowded conditions in shelters or lack of resources on the streets, they’re less able to comply with life-saving measures like hand-washing and social distancing. Responding to the immediate needs, like safe accommodation, of their homeless neighbors has been the priority for communities during the pandemic, but they also need to be thinking about longer-term threats. If unemployment rates are not addressed, we could see a 45% increase in the number of unhoused people this year. And we know that Black people and people of color would likely make up a disproportionate number of those who would suffer—already, 40% of the nation’s homeless population is Black, while Black people are only 13% of the U.S. population.

Preventing a wave of new homelessness is a human rights issue, it’s an equity issue—and as COVID-19 has shown, it’s a public health issue. We have to work swiftly and dedicate the resources and focus required so that reductions in homelessness continue and we don’t unravel the progress that’s been made.

Through this new commitment, Community Solutions and Tableau will invest in training 500 people working at homeless services organizations around the country to become experts in data use and analysis. We’ve already seen in Built for Zero communities how data literacy and creating a data culture can transform homeless services. At the core of Built for Zero is a comprehensive, real-time database called a “by-name list” which includes every person experiencing homelessness in a community—who they are, what their needs are, and what services they access. The by-name lists aggregate all data from local nonprofit and public-sector service providers, breaking down silos and enabling the homeless response system to tailor responses to individual needs and tangibly measure progress. That real-time visibility into those who are unhoused in a community and what they need to secure housing has enabled cities like Abilene, Texas and Rockford, Illinois to functionally end veteran and/or chronic homelessness.

During COVID-19, those same databases have enabled cities like Jacksonville, Florida and Phoenix, Arizona to quickly identify community members who are at high risk for infection and ensure they are safely sheltered and able to socially distance. Access to these critical data is also enabling widespread testing in shelters and among homeless populations. Homeless service providers are quickly recognizing that the Built for Zero model is critical not only for addressing homelessness, but for responding to the pandemic. Communities with a by-name list essentially have an actionable database of their most vulnerable residents. They’ve been able to reference the real-time data to connect people with temporary, safe housing, and continue to provide ongoing support. Even in the face of an overwhelming and unfamiliar crisis, data is illuminating a clear path forward to keep those experiencing homelessness safe.

Communities that have adopted the data-driven Built for Zero model are proving that homelessness is solvable, and they’re proving that a strong, real-time data infrastructure is essential for responding quickly to other crises like COVID-19. In order to scale the Built for Zero approach, more and more people across homeless response systems need to be able to work with data, and use it to make swift, effective, and collaborative decisions. Tableau Foundation and Community Solutions share the goal of helping Built for Zero communities expand their data expertise to inform their daily work and decision-making. This will impact everything from the data collected in the Homeless Services sector to how by-name lists are built out and used to improve service delivery.

We already know that data is central to the work of communities confronting homelessness and the layered crises of COVID-19 and racial inequity. They must be able to see quickly who needs assistance, what kind, and which interventions are working and which are not. The more people who are equipped to do this data work, the stronger communities’ responses and results will be. We hope that this renewed commitment to Built for Zero will empower communities to lead through multiple crises to improve while bringing about a measurable end to homelessness that leaves no one behind.

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